Sometimes art requires that you do strange things.
On a recent project with Dr Gaie Burnet, about a lost predella of Simone Martini,
I was given the opportunity to try on women’s skirts in the name of art. This was not out of some sexually repressed need to dress as a woman, after all, I’m British and this comes as second nature to us. However it was necessary for me to capture the likeness of medieval peasants for the panel.
It did come as a surprise to my wife, when I walked into the sitting room to ask her a question, wearing one of her skirts, I did explain it was for artistic integrity. Bags, walking sticks, a dressing gown for a flying monk’s habit, hats and belts all helped in creating the right look for the drawings.
My dogs were somewhat concerned by my behaviour as I darted around, changing clothes and then setting the camera to timed, running across the kitchen to strike a pose. Only to repeat the chaotic process two seconds later. For them balancing, prone on a stool, to imitate the flying saint was the final act of a madman.
Martini in Siena
In this way and with the absence of my own willing peasant I managed to create a series of pictures that were used in drawing the missing panels from Beato Augustino’s altarpiece, which is now on display in the Palazzo Siena (check). The exercise was an illustration for Dr Burnet’s own work on the painting and how it may have been used for religious instruction and as a way of establishing the Augustinian Order during a time of great change.
Both Dr Burnet and myself found the process of working together an interesting one and exploring Martini’s works at Assisi and Siena was a wonderful experience. It was fun to see how these great works were not just pretty frescoes illustrating the lives of the saints, bishops and Christ but were being used for political propaganda, very much like today’s elaborate electioneering boards proclaiming one belief over another.
Dissecting the message
While I was able to bring my knowledge of painting, colour and design to the project, for me, it was fascinating to hear the political and religious history around the time the artist was working and discover the messages his patrons were most likely trying to convey. What, on the surface of things, appear to be simple depictions of people are quite often more complex, with much of the true meaning being forgotten over time.
I would thoroughly recommend artists and academics working together on projects like this, as both stand to gain a lot more than they realise about the process of making art. Both from a practical perspective of painting and design but also in terms of understanding what clients were trying to get across when commissioning these great works.